25 August 2013

Mindfulness & Habits

Hand made red teacup and Muji candle - personal photo

As I often do at the end of August, I am currently in the middle of a life assessment - thinking about my goals and achievements, my level of happiness, wishes, mistakes... And I noticed one simple element, a recipe that helped me introduce simple changes these past two years, but made a big difference now that I look back: mindfulness and habits. Let me explain.

When I decided to question my lifestyle and identity two years ago, I started thinking on four areas to work on in my life:

  • Simplification of my interior and possessions
  • Improvement of my health (sports, food, meditation, body care)
  • Money and budgeting
  • Preserving time for personal activities, side projects and hobbies

At year + 2, when I look back on the areas which improved a lot, and those I still need to work on, I noticed an emerging pattern, a very simple recipe that seems to have helped a lot: a combination of mindfulness and habit implementation.

Everyday mindfulness

First, mindfulness. As I explained in my last post about money, my first step toward a healthier budget was to be mindful of my spending habits. This works for any area really - being mindful of what you eat, what you spend your free time on, what makes you happy... Being mindful helps noticing patterns, and either change them if you don't like them, or capitalize on them if they are positive.

I find that meditation exercises help a lot being more mindful in everyday life, reducing the amount of time we spend on autopilot, and enjoying the present moment more often. However, one can't be mindful about everything all the time. The key is to decide which area you'd like to work on in priority, and focus your mindfulness on that area for a while.

Implementing habits

Focusing your attention on one area helps with the second and complementary step: introducing and maintaining new habits. When a habit is new, it is not integrated yet, and you need to be mindful about it to remember about it and keep up. But after a few weeks working on that particular habit, it becomes natural, automatic. When it does, you don't need to be mindful about it anymore, and you can focus your mindfulness on another habit.

To illustrate this very simple idea, take driving. When you start learning, you have to be mindful of every little detail - changing gears, changing the lights depending on luminosity etc. But once these little habits have been integrated, a lot of these elements become automatic when you drive, and you don't need to pay attention to these little things anymore, and can focus on the road, the other drivers... That's how all habits work.

Again, just like we can't be mindful about all areas at once, we can't implement several complicated habits at once either. I noticed that most of the elements I still need to work on haven't evolved much because I tried to change too many things at once.

So, when you focus on a habit, do it one at a time, and pick a simple habit to work with. For more details and useful tips on how to implement daily habits, I can suggest you to read Leo Babauta's blog, Zen Habits.

The simple recipe

Keeping this combination of mindfulness and habits in mind, here is my simple recipe to work on these different areas of my life, and implement simple habits that make a big change over time.

  1. Pick up the various areas you'd like to work on: for this one, you have to think long term. What aspects of your life are not entirely satisfying at the present moment? Then prioritize them, as you will change them one after the other, over time.

  2. Select one area to focus on for the next months to come: What is the most important element you'd like to change in your life now? Pick that area, and start listing the various everyday items linked to it. For example if your priority is health, the various items linked to it are food, sports, body care, meditation...

  3. Pick one of these items, and make a list of simple habits you need to implement in order to change it: For example, if your priority is health, and your first item is food, you can come up with a list of habits like: reducing sugar, go to the market more often to get fresh produce, cook more, make your own lunch instead of eating out...

  4. Pick one habit, and implement it now: In my experience, trying to implement all habits at once doesn't work because they are not integrated, automatic yet, so you tend to forget some of them after a while, because it's too difficult to keep up. So pick only one, on which you will focus your mindfulness for about a month.

  5. Keep your attention on this new habit: Once you have concretely implemented the new habit, focus all your attention on it for the next few weeks, to make sure you respect it, don't forget about it. For example, reducing sugar: remember to reduce or suppress sugar in coffe or tea, swap fizzy drinks with water or tea... This is also a good way to learn about yourself and this new habit: you can make adjustments to fit your lifestyle and taste, which requires mindfulness.

  6. Once the new habit is fully integrated, pick the next one: After a few weeks, you will notice that keeping up with your habit requires less and less mindfulness. For example, if you picked a push-ups routine in the morning, you realize you no longer need a reminder on your phone to do them, you start naturally your day with them. When you don't need to be mindful anymore to keep up with the habit, it is integrated. You can now focus your attention on a new habit, keep it up for a few weeks, then move on to a new one etc. 

I hope this simple combination of mindfulness and habits is clear - I wanted to share this because it really helps moving step by step toward my long term objectives.  At first, it seemed too slow and meaningless to implement such simple habits, it didn't feel like it would make much of a difference, but after two years, I can assure you it does. It helped me improve vast areas of my life, and also to know myself better as I adjusted each little habit to my lifestyle and taste.

What about you? How do you implement new habits in your life? How do you tackle areas you are not satisfied with and want to improve?


  1. just when you think you're done being "good", no. 6 would be hardest for me. can't wait to start the school year off with this.

    1. September is a good timing to kick off with new habits, isn't it? Especially when you have a new school year starting :)

  2. This reminds me of when I decided to conquer bad clothes shopping habits about 6 years ago. I love all your thoughts above. One thing I found really helpful in the beginning was to make promises to someone else so that I was held accountable. I made the challenges bigger each time, like "spend only x dollars per month" to eventually easily "not shopping for several months". Now that habit is changed, it is something I don't have to think about. In fact it's harder to get me to actually buy stuff for my wardrobe and then I desperately need something quick smart! (thank you for your comment on my last post, it was greatly appreciated).

    1. Ah, I read somewhere that it helps a lot to share these new habits with other persons in order to commit more strongly to them. It is nice to know that it actually works! I usually share these little things with my family and partner, to get some motivation and support.
      I really enjoy your blog as well, very thoughful posts and nice pictures, I'll probably be commenting some more ;)

  3. This is exactly what I've been doing on my mini blogging break! Looking at my habits, making some new ones, and making sure to prioritize the things that are most important to me. Autumn really is perfect for making these kinds of little life changes. You are right that doing this demands a bit of extra attention and energy at first, which is why I chose to take some time off from other things. You explained the process so well, way to go. Great post as always Kali, your posts just keep getting better :)

    1. Thanks for the appreciation! I agree that the beginning of Autumn is a perfect moment to reassess old habits and new goals and come up with new things to do. I actually make a resolution list every year in September :) I'd love to hear about your own life changes this Autumn!

  4. Like you (and Maja), I find that September is the perfect time for some self-reflection and evaluation, especially looking at habits and goals (and how the two are, or aren't, related). I think it's just that back-to-school feeling that will never go away, no matter how many years I've been out of school! But it's funny that you should write this post right now, since I literally just picked up this book on habits:


    Seems so serendipitous, like something is telling me I really need to be looking at my habits right now. So thanks for the extra little nudge!


    1. I couldn't agree more! Here in France we call September "la rentrée", (the return/come-back). It is the "come-back" of children to school of course but not only, it is the return of TV and radio programmes, the reopening of stores, the return of people from vacation... Even when one isn't at school anymore, September has a huge feeling of renewal here, because August is so dead. I actually make more life resolutions in September than in January, and I seem not to be the only one ;)

      I checked out that book you picked up, it sounds very interesting! I find the patterns of habits amazing, how one can change completely after implementing just a set of simple habits over a few months. Good luck in your own habit editing, let us know how it turns out :)

  5. I love that you call it "la rentrée." I remember my mom saying that when I was a kid. It is so much more marked in Europe because people really do take very long summer holidays. I work at a university and it was so quiet all summer, and now it's starting to pick up again.

    The weather is so all over the map that I'm having trouble thinking of this as "fall," though.

    Regarding habits, I have just started waking up very early in the morning (well for me, anyway). I am loving the time to sit and journal a bit, and do a bit of exercise. Or just get to work early, as the case may be.

    For habit change, I find it really useful to take an externally imposed circumstance and use that to instigate habit change. Fall is a good one. Two weeks ago, I had to wake up really early every day to travel to another city for a conference. I decided to use that momentum to try to establish an early-waking habit. It has only been a week now, but so far it is working.

    1. Ah yes I guess "la rentrée" only works in countries where things really slow down in summer. In France I think it's a part of the culture now, there is all the stationary suddenly on sale at supermarkets for children, ads on the street for the new TV shows premiering early September, and there are even repercussions in other fields like "la rentrée littéraire" which is a period where a lot of new books are published and a lot of literary programmes air about which if these new publications to read.

      I have read something about triggering habits indeed. For example, finishing a meal triggers the habit to brush your teeth. I read an article about using these triggers to implement new habits. Like you I try to wake up earlier in the morning, because I finish work late in the evening and even though I try, I don't have much energy left for anything meaningful when I come home - so I eat dinner and read books. But in the morning I have more energy so I'm trying to shift things a little at a time, but it's not easy especially at the end of the week! Your technique is a good one though :)

  6. (tentative de commentaire, tous ceux que j'ai écris ne sont apparemment pas passés jusqu'à présent ! grmpf !)

    Post très intéressant, j'aime beaucoup voir comment les autres se débrouillent avec des notions que j'essaie d'appliquer moi même... :) La recette fonctionne mais n'est pas pour autant magique chez moi, voir chez la plupart des gens je pense sinon nous serions tous parfaits! Les difficultés que j'ai pu rencontrer sont multiples :
    - je trouve nettement plus facile d'implémenter une nouvelle habitude qui ne nécessite pas de se défaire d'une mauvaise. Exemple : pas de souci pour moi concernant le tartinage quotidien de crème hydratante après la douche, ça n'a été qu'un "plus" à rajouter. Par contre, pour m'entrainer chez moi il faut que je combatte ma flemme de base, sortir du canapé et de ce que j'y fais, et là c'est une autre paire de manche...
    - de même, je trouve plus facile de gérer les choses physiques : aucun problème à simplifier mon dressing ou mon intérieur. Pour ce qui est de manger mieux ou de bouger plus, c'est plus compliqué ! Parce qu'on ne voit pas le résultat tout de suite, qu'il faut être très patient pour apercevoir les bienfaits et qu'il est très facile de retomber dans ses travers...

    Du coup, j'aime ce genre de post parce que ça me permet de voir les petits trucs de chacun, et également de me poser pour réfléchir à ma propre situation et ce que j'aimerais améliorer.

    Et ça tombe bien, l'automne est ma saison préférée également (les 4 derniers mois de l'année précisément) et septembre est toujours l'occasion pour essayer de se poser, faire le point pour mieux repartir même si je ne suis plus le rythme scolaire depuis plusieurs années déjà ! Enfin dernier truc rigolo, la conduite est souvent mon exemple préféré pour expliquer un changement ! :)

    1. C'est vrai que je me demande toujours pourquoi certaines habitudes tiennent et pas d'autres. Effectivement, je pense que se défaire de mauvaises habitudes est plus difficile que de rajouter une petite habitude simple. Puis on a tous nos domaines plus difficiles je pense.

      D'expérience, les habitudes qui n'ont pas marché étaient celles qui n'étaient pas assez simples: avec l'exemple de la nourriture, si j'essaye de supprimer les sucres, ça ne marche pas parce que ce n'est pas assez simple. Par contre, si je décide d'enlever le sucre du café (habitude tenue depuis 18 mois) ou de ne manger du pain qu'au resto et le dimanche (habitude tenue depuis 6 mois), ça marche beaucoup mieux!

      Une autre chose à étudier, c'est ce qui déclenche l'habitude. Dans ton exemple de la crème, c'est le fait de sortir de la douche qui déclenche l'habitude, et comme tu te douches tous les jours (j'imagine) c'est plus simple de se souvenir de passer de la crème après. Implémenter une habitude qui sort de nulle part (par exemple de l'exercice sportif) est plus difficile parce qu'il n'y a pas de "déclencheur". Du coup ce que j'ai fait par exemple, c'est de faire du sport pendant ma pause midi du boulot 2 fois par semaine. J'ai mis un rappel sur mon calendrier outlook, et comme je travaille tous les lundi et tous les jeudi, j'ai réussi à maintenir cette habitude depuis janvier dernier.

      Oui l'exemple de la conduite est le premier qui m'est venu en tête, même si j'avoue que je n'ai conduit que très peu depuis que j'ai mon permis et à mon avis rien n'est automatique du tout chez moi au volant...

    2. c'est comme le vélo, ça s'oublie pas ! ^^

      effectivement, ton exemple sur la bouffe me parle tout de suite ! je vais voir pour lister des points très précis que je peux améliorer. Faut arriver à trouver l'astuce pour combiner partir de zéro/virer une mauvaise habitude et la notion de trigger/déclencheur oui. Un truc à bosser en septembre pour moi. :)

    3. J'ai retrouvé l'article sur l'aggrégation des habitudes:

      L'idée est de créer plusieurs petites habitudes et de les faire l'une après l'autre - du coup l'une est le déclencheur de la suivante etc. Peut-être une aide pour les résolutions de septembre?